Archive for the ‘Mammals’ Category

More Leopard Seals in the Antarctic

February 20th, 2010 at 8:56 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

Among the plentiful life we found in Sandefjord Bay yesterday were a fair number of leopard seals, most of whom were resting on an ice floe in the middle of the bay. You may recall my post about the leopard seals we had previously encountered, but all of those were in the water.

The leopard seals on the ice floe provided us with an excellent photo opportunity, as well as to study them in greater detail.

Leopard seals, just resting

Leopard seals, just resting

Among the things we noticed:

- Leopard seals are true carnivores. We could tell this because they have no molars, just pointy sharp flesh-rendering teeth. Their diet consists primarily of krill with penguin as a bonus (75% krill, 25% penguin, or so).

And here's the tongue as well - note the slick bottom side of the seal where moisture has flattened the fur, making it almost look bald

And here's the tongue as well - note the slick bottom side of the seal where moisture has flattened the fur, making it almost look bald

- Their fur becomes slick when wet. This was apparent when they lifted their bodies and we could see fur sticking up/out where they were dry, while on the part resting on the ice, the fur texture was not apparent, making them look shaved or bald (when in fact the fur was just slicked down).

- They really do have a very reptilian head.

- They are large and beautiful creatures (but I wouldn’t want to be swimming with one or have it think I was a penguin).

It may look like the seal is smiling, but I think it's looking at us and thinking 'dinner'

It may look like the seal is smiling, but I think it's looking at us and thinking 'dinner'

Many more photos I took of the leopard seals yesterday beyond those above can be seen on my Flickr pages, in significantly higher resolution.

 

Penguins and Fur Seals Everywhere

February 20th, 2010 at 2:56 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

Yesterday afternoon we arrived at the western end of the South Orkney Islands, more particularly at Coronation Island and the area known as Sandefjord Bay. And all this is still in what is officially deemed by treaty to be Antarctica.

As I previously related, the waters were alive with Chinstrap penguins, porpoising out of the water non-stop. Well, there was a reason for that. The land around the bay is teeming with life, mostly in the form of perhaps a half million Chinstrap penguins and thousands of fur seals.

In fact the land was so heavily populated that we had no place to make landfall, and instead took an hour and a half Zodiac tour of the area.

To give you an idea of how populated the bay was, below is a panorama of 11 photos of just one small part of the bay.

A panorama of a small part of the land around Sandefjord Bay in the South Orkney Islands featuring hugs numbers of Chinstrap penguins and fur seals

A panorama of a small part of the land around Sandefjord Bay in the South Orkney Islands featuring hugs numbers of Chinstrap penguins and fur seals

This small image, however, doesn’t easily show the tens of thousands of penguins on the rocks. To see those you really need to click on the above image, at which point you will get to a Flickr page where you can see a larger version of the image (still not enough good detail though). From there, click on the “original” link and you will be able to access the original panorama, which is 13,447 pixels across (about 11-13 times the width of the average computer display these days). Or you can click here for the Flickr page giving you that option.

Either way, if you do look at the detailed image look closely at the tops of the tall hills on the right side of the image. The little bumps on it are also penguins. No idea how they got up that high, but they are everywhere!

It’s a really rocky day here at sea as we head to South Georgia today, but we’ll try to get a few more posts up later today.

 

Southern Right Whale on the Starboard Bow – Announcement

February 19th, 2010 at 2:40 pm (AST) by Krystyana Richter

February 18, 2010 – We had just finished lunch, when we heard exactly what I titled this blog. The table we had been eating at was on the starboard side, so I looked out the closest window to see it. I was not able to see it, Plan A failed. Plan B, meaning, I ran to my cabin and grabbed my camera and jacket, then immediately headed towards the bow. At the time that I started snapping photos of the Southern Right whale, my mom was in the chart room, my dad was in dining room, and my brother was in the bridge talking to the captain about the whale. We all saw the whale dive, but all from different angles.

Southern Right whale's fluke

Southern Right whale's fluke

My mom had seen me on the bow without my parka and decided that the whale would take its time resurfacing, and so she went to get my parka. My dad figured the same thing and headed in to get his parka and cameras. Bas stayed where he was.

The right whale is named such because it was the right whale to hunt, it was slow and it floated after it died. It is also extremely rare because they were hunted so much and for a longer time than most of the other whales and they did not get protection until the 1930s. The V-shaped blow is unique to the right whale and the callosities on the head are unique to each individual.

Sort of V-shaped blow

Sort of V-shaped blow

Okay, we had seen the whale in the distance and were catching up to it again. I had no idea where the rest of my family was…until my brother handed me my parka which meant my mom was involved somehow because Bas would not naturally do so. I heard my dad’s voice somewhere behind me but not quite sure where.

The right whale reappeared first on the port side but then came back to starboard for the true performance. I could see the small white spot (compared to rest of the whale) as it surfaced and the whale opened its mouth to gather copepods, and at the same time lifted its tail (one fin was bent). The Whale sank back into the water but returned back for the final perfect, photo opportunity, a dive.

Right whale starting to eat

Right whale starting to eat

The Southern Right whale is eating

The Southern Right whale is eating

We see the Southern Right whale's fluke a second time

We see the Southern Right whale's fluke a second time

We saw it again further out but I was firm in my belief that nothing could beat what I just seen. Plus, it was declared that the ship was not going to continue following the right whale.

Bas started talking about other things we could be seeing that would be “so much better”, the blue whale and the sperm whale. Preferably the blue whale, and then tried to “convince” me of this. I would be happy with either one and I was and am pretty happy about just seeing the right whale……

We saw blue whales the next day.

 

Hello, Macaroni Penguins at Cape Lookout

February 19th, 2010 at 2:15 pm (AST) by Krystyana Richter

Well, the day started with a landing at what would have been the preferred site for Shackleton and his men, Cape Lookout. They attempted to land at Cape Valentine, but the real place where they stayed and Shackleton sailed from to South Georgia, is Point Wild.

Cape Lookout is mostly rock and barely any beach, but the rock is very interesting due to the layers and layers that are each about an inch thick on average. We separated into groups and took a zodiac cruise, with a 15 minute stop on a small beach. The main penguin species were chinstrap but a few macaroni penguins were hopping among them.

chinstrap penguin

chinstrap penguin

two macaroni penguins

two macaroni penguins

The macaroni’s interesting features are an orange crest that connects in the middle, red eyes, and an orange beak. The macaroni penguin comes by its name from the nickname given to the hats with a feather on them, think of the song Yankee Doodle “he stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni” like the macaroni penguins’ crest.

Macaroni penguin shaking off water

Macaroni penguin shaking off water

macaroni penguin with rock in beak

macaroni penguin with rock in beak

This was the first day we saw elephant seals (by the way, that’s why the island is called Elephant Island, because that is what the discoverer of the island saw…elephant seals and incidentally, if you look at a map of the island, it sort of looks like the head of an elephant).

Elephant seal male pup winking

Elephant seal male pup winking

Pintado petrels were in the hundreds and the small Wilson’s storm petrels were hopping above the water in among the crowds of petrels as they flew from one section of ocean to another. To add to the excitement, a penguin had died (or was killed) and all the petrels were scrambling to get piece of it, as well as other species of petrel. The Pintado petrels were like piranhas and they were loud.

Pintada petrels eating penguin remains

Pintada petrels eating penguin remains

Wilson's storm petrel

Wilson's storm petrel

Pintada petrel taking off

Pintada petrel taking off

Wilson's storm petrel hopping on water

Wilson's storm petrel hopping on water

Pintada petrels taking off

Pintada petrels taking off

The hotel department provided hot chocolate on our zodiac cruise by sending out a zodiac with hot chocolate and alcoholic fixings. The zodiac they used had a flag waving above that said “Hot Choco” in red.

The Hot Choco Pirates

The Hot Choco Pirates

The funny thing today was that many of the penguins seemed to be very clumsy. First we saw a chinstrap slip and fall on a cliff face, another chinstrap kept on slipping into the ocean because of the waves, and a macaroni penguin slid off a steep rock face after desperately trying to stay up right, and splashed into the ocean. My mom was putting into the little virtual speech bubbles above their heads “I meant to do that”.

 

Visiting Pourquoi Pas Island in the Antarctic

February 19th, 2010 at 11:19 am (AST) by Jake Richter

Monday, February 15th – It was the second day on the Antarctic Peninsula so far, and we had an early start as Bud, our expedition leader, decided we should visit Pourquoi Pas Island as we headed back north.

In addition to both the regular shore visit and a Zodiac tour, we were also given the option of kayaking in the area, so that’s what we all did.

The National Geographic Explorer includes an easy to assemble kayaking platform which floats in the ocean

The National Geographic Explorer includes an easy to assemble kayaking platform which floats in the ocean

We were in the Group B kayak group, meaning we left the National Geographic Explorer at 9:15am by Zodiac, getting to a special floating kayak launch platform in the open seas, and then getting in two-person kayaks. Bas and I were in one kayak, and Linda and Krystyana in another.

Krystyana and Linda in a kayak at Pourquoi Pas island

Krystyana and Linda in a kayak at Pourquoi Pas island

We spent about an hour paddling around, looking at the floating chunks of ice, the glacier cliff, and various critters on bits of land (and a penguin on one of the ice floes too).

Another gorgeously colored glacial ice berg

Another gorgeously colored glacial ice berg

The bits of ice in the water ranged in size from the size of a pack of cards to larger than our house. We were warned during our briefing to stay away from anything taller than us because they were dangerous and unstable.

One small iceberg had an Adelie (pronounced “Ah-Dell-Ee”) penguin on it, and on a nearby rock outcropping we found a group of fur seals.

Fur seals line the rock outcroppings at Pourquoi Pas Island

Fur seals line the rock outcroppings at Pourquoi Pas Island

I also took the opportunity to approach a smaller “berg bit” and break off a chunk of ice to taste it. I was surprised to find that it tasted pure – not a bit of salt. Apparently, with glacial ice, even floating in the water, the saline of ocean water does not penetrate beyond the surface of the ice.

After our kayak workout, we were taken to shore at nearby Bongrain Point, a landing on Pourquoi Pas Island, where we found numerous small groups of Adelie penguins on a broad expanse of rock rubble and a glacial moraine (deposits of rock left by receding glaciers).

Adelie penguins observing the National Geographic Explorer

Adelie penguins observing the National Geographic Explorer

Penguins prefer to enter the water in groups to reduce the risk of predation of any one particular penguin

Penguins prefer to enter the water in groups to reduce the risk of predation of any one particular penguin

Adelie penguins leaping into the water to go feed

Adelie penguins leaping into the water to go feed

A swimming Adelie penguin

A swimming Adelie penguin

We found many of the rocks on shore covered by lichen, a fungal spore “plant” which can be hundreds of years old and grows very slowly. Lichen are the most populous plant family found in Antarctica, as regular tall plants simply cannot survive the climate. There’s a rare specie of grass, two flower plants, and several mosses that grow in the Antarctic, but not much else that will grow on land.

Lichen grow surprisingly abundantly in the Antarctic

Lichen grow surprisingly abundantly in the Antarctic

Close-up of the same lichens seen previously

Close-up of the same lichens seen previously

A different set of lichens on a rock at Pourquoi Pas Island

A different set of lichens on a rock at Pourquoi Pas Island

Later in the day our progress was interrupted by a pod of over twenty killer whales, and we got to spend nearly an hour following them around.

Six orcas swim together in the frigid waters of Antarctica

Six orcas swim together in the frigid waters of Antarctica

We stumbled across some crabeater seals relaxing on an ice floe while watching the orcas nearby

We stumbled across some crabeater seals relaxing on an ice floe while watching the orcas nearby

Two orcas with a glacier in the distance

Two orcas with a glacier in the distance

Our cetacean mammal researcher, Stephanie Martin, went out on a Zodiac in order to use her special crossbow and quarrels to try an obtain a DNA sample from one of the orcas, but after a half hour was forced to return to the Explorer, unsuccessful in her efforts.

Our cetacean specialist Stephanie pursues a bull killer whale with a crossbow to get a DNA sample

Our cetacean specialist Stephanie pursues a bull killer whale with a crossbow to get a DNA sample

Our day ended with what is likely to be our only passage through an ice pack. The ice pack was loose, composed of countless chunks of varying size of ice. But what was thoroughly impressive was the loud grinding noise that accompanied our ten minute passage through the ice pack.

Linda and I watched the forward progress of the Explorer through the ice pack on the TV in our cabin, and the trailing progress from our balcony at the rear of the ship. Pretty amazing.

Each cabin on the National Geographic Explorer has a TV on which the view from a forward mounted camera can be seen - here we are in a loose ice pack

Each cabin on the National Geographic Explorer has a TV on which the view from a forward mounted camera can be seen - here we are in a loose ice pack

This is what the loose ice pack looks like - it was not cold enough to freeze solid while we were there

This is what the loose ice pack looks like - it was not cold enough to freeze solid while we were there

The National Geographic Explorer's wake through the ice pack it is breaking through

The National Geographic Explorer's wake through the ice pack it is breaking through

 

Leopard Seals in the Antarctic Seas

February 19th, 2010 at 9:48 am (AST) by Jake Richter

There are two major predators (besides man) in the seas of the Antarctic: Orcas (Killer Whales) and Leopard Seals.

We’ve seen two pods of orcas so far (more on the second pod later), and had a few encounters with leopard seals, which is what the focus of this post is about.

Penguins are mainstay of the leopard seal diet, and thus near penguin colonies is where you’re most likely to find leopard seals. In fact, yesterday afternoon, a group of folks saw a leopard seal attack and eat two Chinstrap penguins (one at a time, in sequence).

We have seen leopard seals twice so far on our trip, and heard of a third set of encounters (including a punctured Zodiac). Leopard seals are large – 8-10 feet long for the ones we’ve seen, and very threatening looking when you see them up close, as they have very reptilian shaped heads, and demonic looking reddish eyes. Of course, Macaroni penguins have red eyes too, and still manage to look cute, but that’s a different story.

Below are a series of photos I have collected over the last several days of leopard seals to help give you some idea of what they look like.

A female leopard seal scouts out our Zodiac - here she doesn't look big but she was over 8 feet long

A female leopard seal scouts out our Zodiac - here she doesn't look big but she was over 8 feet long

A leopard seal gets its name from the spots on it sleek skin

A leopard seal gets its name from the spots on it sleek skin

Leopard seals are very intimidating with their reptilian heads and features and red eye - here the nostrils are closed

Leopard seals are very intimidating with their reptilian heads and features and red eye - here the nostrils are closed

The same leopard seal with nostrils flared and even redder looking eyes

The same leopard seal with nostrils flared and even redder looking eyes

Leopard seals are also quite dexterous and can leap from the water as seen here

Leopard seals are also quite dexterous and can leap from the water as seen here

The above images are available in larger form on Flickr here.